|Frank O Hara (Wiki Commons)|
It would be very overambitious of me to stand here and talk about all of American twentieth century poetry - to talk about poets like Frost, Plath, Ezra Pound, Robert Lowell and their contemporaries would take much longer time and knowledge then I have, but I did want to touch very briefly on the fact that American poets wrote prolifically and radically during the twentieth century. They did so to build on upon and reject the legacy of Romanticism, but also to grapple with "how to make new”, as Pound declared the modern poet must, poetic forms, that is how to write original, authentic American poetry.
Naturally, this led to a lot of experimentation, which I'm going to simplify and say it was fueled by two groups-one group that wanted to push the boundaries of poetry and language-the Imagists and the so-called Beat Generation-and the other that wanted to push the boundaries of who wrote poetry-the Black Arts Movement, Harlem and Chicago Schools of Renaissance and women writers, who wanted to explore and celebrate suppressed voices and cultures.
Modernist and Experimental American twentieth century poetry is often characterized by and often associated with use of the typewriter-it wasn't that they were the first poets ever to use typewriters, but that they were the first to use modern technology to challenge the barriers of what we would consider to be poetry. In the nineteen twenties, the so called-Imagists were the first to take advantage of its power to control the exact spacing and shape of every line, and thus to make a poem's visual appearance as important as its musical rhythms-in short to rebel against the inherited forms that had become the narrative of poetry at the start of the twentieth century. What looks like a thin trickle of letters becomes, to a reader who has learned the tricks, is a picture in print"-a rain drop, or a flower. It means that their most characteristic poems do not lend themselves to being read out loud; they are so embedded in print that to voice them is to sacrifice their radicalness,their so-called visual integrity. E.E Cummings-the man at the forefront of this literary movement- called his poems "inaudible." In the wake of this modernism, American poets continued to experiment with new techniques and themes while the impact of the Depression and WW2, and the continuing political struggle of the African Americans challenged the fabric of this literature, and of society.
Frank O Hara, who I want to talk about today, is not an immediately recognizable figure of American twentieth century poetry: he came after the movement of Imagism and Modernism, although many of his poems echoed the style-but he was a dynamic leader of the "New York School" of poets, whose poetry was engaged with the worlds of music, dance, and painting. His poetry is radical in the sense that he was a writer of the occasional: he responded constantly to events, to people around him. He was born in Baltimore, he then moved to Massachusetts, and served in World War Two, after which he went to Harvard, and among with writing poetry had what I think is a very enviable job (he was a curator for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he basically spent his time just hanging out in the art world). He has in poetry two opposed wishes—to keep time and to stop time—which share a source: both are methods for banishing “the mounting panic” of boredom, which O’Hara linked with his childhood. The experiences that O’Hara had as a child and as a young man seemed to him anything but fictional: his father dying while he was at Harvard, his mother descending into an alcoholic spiral, his own sexual and artistic awakening stranding him without a past to which he could comfortably return. You can see O’Hara’s entire oeuvre as an attempt, therefore, to remake identity on terms more durable than the ones to which he had been consigned. His poems, so full of names and places and events, are exquisite ledgers for the tallying of reality.